The Inevitable Progression of Anthony Rizzo

Anyone who has watched the Cubs in recent weeks has been likely found themselves fueled by a certain degree of frustration. In some cases, it’s underperforming expectations. In others, it’s not even a performance issue necessarily, but more of a general baseball issue, in that it’s not always the fairest of games. Sometimes, even for long stretches, things don’t go your way. We’ve seen it recently in many instances with Kyle Schwarber. We’ve seen it on the bump with Jon Lester. And we’ve absolutely seen it with Anthony Rizzo, who will serve as our focus here.

When we talk about the Cubs’ offense not quite putting it together to this point, Rizzo is one of the pieces that we’re talking about. The Cubs really haven’t come together as the cohesive offensive power that they’ve emerged as in the last couple of seasons, and Rizzo’s early struggles, or apparent struggles, are a part of that. Heading into the weekend, Rizzo ranks in the bottom half overall (and in a few cases near the very bottom) among Major League first basemen in batting average, isolated power, OPS, and TAv.

On the surface, Rizzo’s numbers don’t inspire. Most casual fans will look to the .224 average as a source of disappointment, although he has reached base at a clip of .362 heading into the weekend. Nonetheless, his .224 average represents a decrease of almost 70 points off of last year’s figure. His ISO has fallen by about 70 and his OPS has come down by over 150. An isolated power of only .178 would also mark the lowest that Rizzo has posted since his first full campaign with the Cubs back in 2013. The same can be said of his TAv, which at .264 currently sits identical to his mark posted that year. The TAv has also come down by 70, from .334 to the .264 figure he’s posted thus far. FanGraphs has Rizzo’s park adjusted offense coming in just barely above league average, at 103.

Obviously, that’s not an ideal start in a number of respects. Casual fans look at something like the .224 average and immediately become alarmed that something is wrong with their superstar first baseman, while the lack of power to this point could also ignite the same sort of reaction from a similar group.

At the same time, a relatively simple look on a deeper level lends itself to some serious optimism surrounding Anthony Rizzo. Sure, there have been a couple of small stretches where he’s looked frustrated or a bit in his head at the plate. But many of the peripheral numbers and trends at the plate, in terms of approach and contact, should direct all of us toward the idea that it isn’t a matter of if Rizzo will emerge from his early season struggles, but when.

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Whiff% Contact% Hard% BABIP
2015 31.3 65.5 46.2 7.7 80.6 33.2 .289
2016 31.3 62.7 45.3 8.1 80.3 34.3 .309
2017 30.4 62.2 44.8 7.2 81.0 28.8 .220

There’s a lot of evidence here that points toward the idea of encouragement. His approach has been relatively constant. His number of pitches seen per plate appearance is down just a touch, at 3.69, but he’s walking at a higher rate than ever, at 13.5 percent. It’s not like he’s going up there and whiffing, either. His strikeout rate also sits at 13.5 percent, which represents a decrease and the best mark of his career in that regard. The approach is there, and the ability to make contact is still there.

In terms of pitch selection, there isn’t a whole lot he’s doing differently either, as indicated here by Brooks Baseball. His swing rate against the hard stuff has remained almost identical to last year, while his swing rates against breaking and offspeed pitches have each fluctuated by less than two percent. He’s covering the zone in just about the same fashion that he did in 2015/2016 as well. His heatmap from those two seasons, which were incredibly similar in overall production, mirrors that of his 2017 heatmap to this point.

So the approach hasn’t changed, in almost any sense. He’s still swinging and making contact at extremely similar rates to that of the last two seasons prior to 2017. Exactly to what, then, do we attribute the following?

LD% GB% FB% Pull% Oppo%
2015 21.8 34.6 43.6 43.2 21.9
2016 20.3 38.4 41.3 45.6 21.8
2017 16.1 42.7 41.1 52.0 20.0

As indicated farther above, he’s not making hard contact as consistently. In fact, his soft contact percentage has risen by about five percent. Interestingly enough, Joe Maddon had noted that Rizzo was experiencing a timing issue. That was explored in this writeup from Bruce Levine. If it has, in fact, been a timing or rhythm issue for Rizzo, that would seem to explain a lot. Messed up timing has a penchant for increased groundballs and softer contact, both of which Rizzo has demonstrated throughout the season so far. The soft contact, in particular, has been a killer, as that flyball rate remaining the same combined with an increased Soft% is certainly a large factor in that brutal BABIP that Rizzo currently has to his name.

It’s easy to look at Anthony Rizzo’s numbers and become somewhat discouraged. But he’s not doing anything differently. He’s still the same player, maintaining the same approach, both in terms of pitch selection and zone coverage. Those trends have remained similar or close to it, while his strikeout rate is down and the walk rate is up. That’s a lot to like. If this can be chalked up to a timing and comfort issue, that seems to be a relatively easy fix as more plate appearances come.

Which means that it’s only a matter of time before Anthony Rizzo sorts himself out and gets on track. As that development takes place, the contact will be harder, the ISO will increase, the BABIP will rise, and everything else will come along with them.

**Batted Ball Figures via FanGraphs

Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports

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